Thursday evening at Daemen College, the Rev. Eric Johns took time out from his annual five-day stay on Buffalo’s streets to serve on a panel discussing homelessness and hunger.
“I told the audience, ‘I don’t feel qualified to be on this panel, but I guess I can tell some stories, because I’ve been homeless for 2½ months,’ ” Johns recalled Friday.
That’s 2½ months total – five nights a year for 15 straight years – always on Thanksgiving week or the week before.
Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, spends five full days on the streets each year, seeking to shine a light on the homeless population, connect with them and raise awareness and funds for his church’s annual Christmas campaign, Boxes of Love.
But this may be Johns’ last year of street life and soup kitchens. He realizes it’s time to “pass the baton” on to others, so the next generation can begin to take over some of his leadership role as pastor of his downtown church.
That’s why he’s spending more time training and mentoring young people to keep running with his vision, the 42-year-old Johns said in a downtown coffee shop Friday.
“I love what I do, but I’ve seen so many ministries, when the founder is finished, the ministry or organization is finished, too,” he said.
Buffalo will always be his home, he added. And the Dream Center will always be his church. But it can’t last forever if he’s the only one running the church and its programs.
Johns acknowledged that his ministry has taken a toll on him, both physically and emotionally.
“This year has been the hardest on me physically,” Johns said of his annual stay that ends this morning. “As soon as we got out from under the bridge this morning, I took Ibuprofen for my back.
“And I’ve struggled the past year with feelings of being burned out,” he added. “I’ve gone through a whole period of time when the ministry has been tougher on me emotionally.”
He realizes it may sound like a cliche, but Johns uses his annual five-night stay to appreciate the life he has.
“It’s not just my warm bed and home,” he explained. “I really miss my family. A lot of the homeless have no family, and I’ve only been away from mine for four days.”
As he does every year, Johns has an assortment of people accompanying him for a few days or nights on the streets, including family members, Buffalo Dream Center parishioners and some homeless people, past and present.
John Jones, 27, part of the next generation of the church’s leaders, did the honors Thursday night, sleeping out with Johns under the Michigan Avenue overpass, as he has the last few years.
Jones is struck by the “heart” his pastor has for people on the streets.
“They need somebody to talk to,” he said. “They want to be listened to.”
Pastor Johns does just that, and he’s clearly proud of the reputation he’s carved out on the streets. “I still get a lot of hugs and high-fives when I go into a shelter or soup kitchen,” he said.
By his side, at least during the daytime, has been longtime friend Keith Cauley, 59, a Dream Center member and former street person.
Cauley hopes that Johns’ stay on the streets can help shatter some stereotypes about the homeless. Most of them aren’t pushing shopping carts full of their belongings or panhandling for money.
“I want people to be more compassionate to the homeless,” Cauley said. “People should remember that they’re individuals. They’re human beings.”
Johns gave an example of some of the intelligent and talented homeless people he has met. A few days ago, in a local soup kitchen, he sat next to a man who makes hand-carved, painted walking sticks that he adorns with images of superheroes, like Batman.
“You meet people like this who don’t fit the stereotype,” he said.
The pastor, though, knows that the clock is ticking on his annual pilgrimage to the streets.
“If I’m not on the streets next year, I’m OK with that,” he said. “I want to pass the baton.”